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Islamists Pledge Loyalty After Bahraini Vote

Muslim political leaders try to overcome their chagrin that their call for boycott was ignored.

October 26, 2002|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

MANAMA, Bahrain — Islamic political leaders struck a conciliatory tone Friday after turnout figures showed that their calls for a boycott of this week's parliamentary election fell short.

"Yes, we will cooperate with the elected members, and it is wrong not to do so," said Hawad Abdulwahabm, deputy chairman of the Islamic Action Committee.

If the Islamists were chagrined at the election outcome, leaders of the women's political movement in this Persian Gulf nation were exultant. Two of eight female candidates earned spots in a runoff next week.

"My main goal is, with God's blessing, to elevate the status of Bahraini women," said Latifah Qaoud, 46, a training manager in the Ministry of Finance, who will face a male opponent.

Despite the boycott, 53.2% of voters went to the polls Thursday to elect 40 members to a newly created parliament. It was the first national election of legislators since the then-ruling emir disbanded the previous parliament in 1975, four years after Bahrain received independence from Britain.

Islamic opponents of the regime had boasted that less than a third of voters would go to the polls.

The boycott may have hurt conservative Shiite Muslim candidates. Whereas Shiites swept municipal elections in the spring, they appeared to have split the seats in parliament evenly with Sunni Muslim candidates.

The U.S. and Britain have been watching the election and aftermath to see whether Bahrain can avoid the turbulence that has occurred in other Arab countries that have opened up their political processes.

In Kuwait, for example, Islamists now dominate parliament and are engaging in near-daily political skirmishes with the monarch, including over political rights for women.

In Bahrain, the stakes are increased because some Islamist leaders have called for ousting the U.S. Navy from a base here that it uses as a regional headquarters in the Persian Gulf.

The Islamist leaders complained that under a new constitution, the king, Sheik Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, retains veto power over legislation and can appoint all members of a second legislative body. The king is Sunni.

Friction between the Shiite and Sunni sects has long dominated Bahraini politics and led to sporadic violence in the 1990s. Western observers hoped that the election outcome would show a disaffection among voters for continuing the religious feud.

The debate over parliament's lack of power "is sometimes just a mask for some people to exercise sectarian muscle," said British Ambassador Peter Ford.

In this spring's municipal elections, 30 women ran for office, but none was elected. Before Thursday's election, prospective female candidates agreed that only one woman would run in each district to avoid a split vote.

"This is a very hopeful sign," Wajaweha Baharanh, director of the Bahrain Women Society, said of the election. "You cannot have a leadership in Bahrain or anywhere without women."

Baharanh said the female candidates, if they win in next week's runoff, will offer legislation about divorce, child custody and "men's treatment of women."

If either woman wins, she will become the first female member of parliament among the small emirates in the Persian Gulf.

Hugh Canavan, an analyst with the London-based Gulf Center for Strategic Studies, said the lasting significance of the vote may be in the enthusiasm of women, despite cultural strictures that important decisions should be left to men.

"The central message is when women are given a chance to vote, they've taken it," Canavan said.

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